Black History Month: Bill Nunn Blazes Another Trail

Black History Month: Bill Nunn Blazes Another Trail

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History was made the evening of February 6, when Bill Nunn officially was announced as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021.

Nunn, already a trailblazer in a career that spanned over five decades with the Pittsburgh Steelers, became the first Black elected to the Hall in the Contributor category.

A graduate of a Historically Black College and University, West Virginia State, Nunn’s enshrinement will come the same weekend as one of the men he is credited with finding for the Steelers in his role as a scout: Donnie Shell.

Shell was a standout of South Carolina State, one of the many HBCUs where Nunn cultivated relationships that paid off in the Steelers drafting or signing players other organizations were overlooking. He was a free agent signee for Pittsburgh in the same year the Steelers, under Nunn’s guidance, drafted Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster – far and away the most productive draft in National Football League history by one team.

Watch 'The Knock' for Bill Nunn's Family:

Nunn’s accomplishment in reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame is merely the latest in a long list of historical firsts for Blacks in professional football. Here are several other noteworthy firsts:

Pioneers, Milestones and Firsts

Pre-NFL Years

Charles W. Follis, Halfback, Wooster
Played 1902-06 with the Shelby Athletic Club.
First documented evidence of his playing for pay is for the season of 1904, although recent evidence suggests that the Shelby Athletic Club was professional as early as 1902.

Charles (Doc) Baker, Halfback, no college
Played 1906-08 and 1911 for the Akron Indians

Henry McDonald, Halfback, Canandaigua Academy
Played 1911-17 for the Rochester Jeffersons

Gideon (Charlie) Smith, Tackle, Michigan Agricultural
Played one game (November 28, 1915) for the Canton Bulldogs


Frederick (Fritz) Pollard, Back, Brown
Played 1919-1921, 1925-26 Akron, 1922 Milwaukee, 1923, 1925 Hammond, 1925 Providence

Robert (Rube) Marshall, End, Minnesota
Played 1919-1921 Rock Island, 1925 Duluth

Paul Robeson, End, Rutgers
Played 1921 Akron, 1922 Milwaukee

Jay (Inky) Williams, End, Brown
Played 1921 Canton, 1921-26 Hammond, 1924 Dayton, 1925 Cleveland

John Shelbourne, Back, Dartmouth
Played 1922 Hammond

Fred (Duke) Slater, Tackle, Iowa
Played 1922 Milwaukee, 1922-25 Rock Island, 1926 Rock Island (AFL), 1926-1931 Chicago Cardinals

James Turner, Back, Northwestern
Played 1923 Milwaukee

Sol Butler, Back, Dubuque
Played 1923 Rock Island, 1923-24, 1926 Hammond, 1924 Akron, 1926 Canton

Dick Hudson, Back, no college
Played 1923 Minneapolis, 1925-26 Hammond

Harold Bradley, Guard, Iowa
Played 1928 Chicago Cardinals

David Myers, Guard/Back, New York University
Played 1930 Staten Island, 1931 Brooklyn

Joe Lillard, Back, Oregon
Played 1932-1933 Chicago Cardinals

Ray Kemp, Tackle, Duquesne
Played 1933 Pittsburgh


Kenny Washington, Halfback, UCLA
Played with San Francisco Clippers (PCPFL) 1944-45. Signed a contract with the Los Angeles Rams on March 21, 1946; played 1946-48 with the Rams

Woody Strode, End, UCLA
Signed a contract with the Los Angeles Rams May 7, 1946. Played with the Rams 1946 only. Played with Calgary Stampeders (WIFU) 1948

Bill Willis, Guard, Ohio State
Signed a contract with the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference on August 6, 1946. Played 1946-1953 with the Browns

Marion Motley, Fullback, South Carolina State; Nevada
Signed a contract with the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference on August 9, 1946. Played 1946-1953 Cleveland Browns, 1955 Pittsburgh Steelers

Firsts by African-Americans in the Modern Era (Post-World War II)

First African-American drafted by an NFL club: George Taliaferro, halfback (Indiana). Picked by the Chicago Bears in the thirteenth round of the 1949 draft but elected to sign with the Los Angeles Dons of the AAFC. Played with the Dons 1949; New York Yanks 1950-51; Dallas 1952; Baltimore 1953-54; Philadelphia 1955

First African-American draftee to play in the NFL: Wally Triplett, halfback (Penn State). Picked by the Detroit Lions in the nineteenth round of the 1949 draft. Played with Detroit 1949-1950; Chicago Cardinals 1952-53

First name star from a predominantly African-American college: Paul (Tank) Younger, fullback-linebacker (Grambling). Los Angeles Rams 1949-1957; Pittsburgh 1958

First African-American quarterback in the NFL: Willie Thrower (Michigan State), Chicago Bears 1953

First African-American official: Burl Toler (San Francisco University), field judge/head linesman, 1965 to 1989

First African-American referree: Johnny Grier (University of D.C.), 1988

First pros from predominantly African-American schools: Ezzret Anderson, end (Kentucky State), Los Angeles Dons (AAFC), 1947; John Brown, center (North Carolina College), Los Angeles Dons (AAFC), 1947; Elmore Harris, halfback (Morgan State), Brooklyn, 1947

First African-American lineman to win all-league honors: AAFC-Bill Willis, guard (Ohio State), Cleveland, 1946; NFL-Bill Willis, guard, Cleveland, 1950

First African-American back to win all-league honors: AAFC-Marion Motley, fullback (South Carolina State; Nevada), Cleveland, 1946; NFL-Marion Motley, fullback, Cleveland, 1950

First African-American to win individual league statistical championship: AAFC-Marion Motley, fullback. Cleveland, 1946 (rushing); NFL-Marion Motley, fullback, Cleveland, 1950 (rushing)

First African-American elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame: Emlen Tunnell, defensive back (Iowa), New York Giants 1949-1958, Green Bay 1959-1961: elected 1967

First African-American starting quarterback in a Super Bowl: Doug Williams, Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XXII (following the 1987 season)

First African-American general manager: Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore Ravens, 2002

First African-American referree in a Super Bowl: Mike Carey, Super Bowl XLII

Coaching Firsts by African-Americans

First African-American head coach: Fritz Pollard, 1921 Akron, 1925 Hammond

First African-American head coach, modern era: Art Shell, 1989 Los Angeles Raiders

First African-American assistant coach: Lowell Perry, 1957 Pittsburgh Steelers

First African-American head coach to take team to Super Bowl: Lovie Smith, 2006 Chicago Bears; Tony Dungy, 2006 Indianapolis Colts

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